Posted by Ayana Elizabeth of Waitt Institute in Ocean Views on July 2, 2014
Coral reefs are very complex ecosystems, but luckily managing them sustainably is not. Simply don’t catch fish faster than they reproduce, don’t damage the corals or pollute the water, and protect some areas as marine reserves.
That’s easier said than done, and it’s not news. What is new is that an exhaustive, Caribbean-wide analysis shows that the #1 thing we can do to ensure the health of coral reefs is to protect parrotfish.
Parrotfish are colorful and voracious herbivores that spend up to 90% of their day eating algae off of coral reefs with. And they poop sand (up to 200 pounds of it per year!) keeping beaches beachy, as this humorous video explains.
However, parrotfish have been overfished and Caribbean reefs have gotten increasingly furry with algae over the past for decade, resulting in a far less pretty picture, and a far less productive and resilient ecosystem.
The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network of IUCN has just released a report by 90 experts* that analyzed a massive amount of data – 35,000 surveys conducted at 90 Caribbean locations since 1970! –including much that has never been analyzed and published before. You can find the report and executive summary here, and a video explanation here, but here’s my distillation:
A spearfisher’s catch in Curaçao, mostly parrotfish. (Photo: Ayana)The report recommends:
This comprehensive report provides further support for banning catch of parrotfish altogether, or at least restricting the use of the fish traps (See “Solution: Escape Gaps for Fish Traps”), spearguns, and gill nets that target them as several locations have done, and for the ban drafted by the local government of Barbuda as part of the Barbuda Blue Halo Initiative.
This is not an ocean hugging environmental issue, Caribbean reefs generate more than US$ 3 billion annually from tourism and fisheries. This is a problem we can solve, to great benefit of ecosystems and economies. Here’s to hoping 2014 continues to be a year of strong action for ocean conservation, not just for establishing marine reserves, but also for saving parrotfish and therefore Caribbean reefs.
Queen parrotfish eating algae off a relatively healthy reef. Their beak-like mouth is perfect for this. (Photo: Stanley Bysshe)*Note: For more positive stories about solutions for ocean conservation see the Smithsonian Ocean Portal, State Department’s “ocean success stories,” MOS Foundation, and follow#oceanoptimism on Twitter.
*Disclosure: Dr. Jeremy Jackson, the report’s lead author was my PhD advisor, and I am one of the 90 contributing scientists. Kudos to Dr. Jackson for his herculean effort coordinating this project over the last three years.